March 1, 2017

LINSEY | Claudio Ranieri: A Legend’s Downfall

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When Claudio Ranieri signed on as manager of Leicester City in the summer of 2015, few expected success for the club. While the Italian was an experienced manager, he was entering the twilight of his career. His new team was no powerhouse either — after narrowly escaping relegation the previous campaign, the Foxes were poised for another battle to beat the drop.

Yet just under a year later, Leicester players were lifting the Premier League trophy and celebrating the most remarkable championship in the history of sport. Ranieri, in his first season at the club, had turned journeymen players like Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante into champions. These players and their manager led a Beatles-esque rise from nowhere to stardom for the Foxes. King Power Stadium was rocking when Andrea Bocelli, the world-famous Italian classical singer, belted out Nessun Dorma before the team’s final game. Leicester’s unprecedented title victory had been achieved and celebrated in some style.

Fast-forward ten months and the Midlands city’s soccer team has an entirely different vibe. The Foxes have struggled mightily this season, sitting in seventeenth place, just one spot above the relegation zone. Leicester went 638 minutes without scoring in the Premier League, being shut out from Dec. 31 until that fateful day, Feb. 23, when Leicester’s board fired Ranieri. The decision provoked massive outcry, as the affable Italian had become a cult hero among the fans, despite the poor form this season.

The primary reason for Leicester’s downfall is poor summer recruitment. After the season they had, there should have been many talented players willing to make the switch to Leicester. The team could have used another forward, defensive midfielder and center back to strengthen for another title challenge. The team made six signings, including one player at each of these positions.

The major problem is none of these players has significantly improved the team. The best of the signings is probably Islam Slimani, who has scored goals for the club when healthy. Ron-Robert Zieler has also filled in capably in goal when necessary. Elsewhere, though, these additions have struggled to make an impact. Ahmed Musa came from CSKA Moscow with a reputation as a speedy striker, and while his pace has come to England with him, his goal-scoring has not. Nampalys Mendy has often been injured and failed to impress. Luis Hernandez made a few starts early on in the season, but he left the club in January, while Bartosz Kapustka was signed as a project who could be a star in a few years. All in all, Leicester has had to rely on the same players that won them the championship, with no proven new additions to turn to when the old stand-bys need rest.

Leicester needed to have a deeper team this season because of the added pressure of the UEFA Champions League. By winning the Premier League, they qualified for this prestigious competition, and they have done well in it so far. However, it has meant seven more games for the club already, in addition to the League Cup, FA Cup, the Community Shield, and regular league games. This has taken a toll on the fitness of the players, who often have to play a 90-minute match every three days. New signings could have lessened the load by playing in cup competitions, but because of their failures, the regulars have had to play there too, and Leicester’s league form has suffered.

I cannot discuss Leicester’s difference between this year and last year without addressing N’Golo Kante. The durable defensive midfielder played a pivotal role in their title season, covering every blade of grass to win the ball back for the team. Over the summer, he was the only key player to be tempted by big money offers, accepting a move to top club Chelsea. There, he has continued to excel, and could win the Premier League in two straight seasons.

Back in the Midlands, Leicester has missed his excellence, as replacement Andy King does not have Kante’s skill, so Danny Drinkwater has had to play more defensively. Teams have attacked Leicester with renewed confidence, and the defensive pair of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth has been more exposed. The result has been more goals conceded, more defeats, and eventually Ranieri’s firing. Ranieri achieved the unthinkable at Leicester: a Premier League title. Yet, poor summer recruitment, additional competitions and the loss of Kante have led to a terrible season this year and his dismissal this week.